Unafraid of backlash, 30 Chennai women prepare for journey to Sabarimala

The Chennai-based women’s rights organisation that will undertake the pilgrimage was started after Jisha's murder in Kerala.
Unafraid of backlash, 30 Chennai women prepare for journey to Sabarimala
Unafraid of backlash, 30 Chennai women prepare for journey to Sabarimala
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Months after the Supreme Court of India allowed the entry of women between the ages of 10 and 50 to enter the Sabarimala temple in Pathanamthitta district in Kerala, not a single woman in the ‘menstrual’ age bracket has entered, thanks to violence and protests from Hindutva groups. However, on Sunday, news broke of a group of Chennai-based women, who have planned to make the journey, despite the threats and violence faced by women devotees and journalists over the last couple of months.

A smiling Selvi greets us at her home in Chennai. A lawyer and activist, the 44-year-old says that Manithi, the women’s group that plans to make the journey, has a special connection with Kerala. Manithi, she says, was born out of a rally that took place at the Marina beach in Chennai following the death of Jisha in Kerala. A 30-year-old Dalit law student from Perumbavoor in Ernakulam, Jisha was raped and murdered in her home on April 28, 2016.

“A lot of us gathered together after Jisha’s death and conducted a rally called Justice for Jisha at the Marina beach. The turnout out was larger than we expected so we felt why can’t we get together and work for women’s rights? So we created Manithi as a common platform. Women from all walks of life-- professors, IT employees, domestic workers, doctors, home makers, students, theists, atheists, are all part of Manithi.” she says.

So what prompted the group’s decision to go to Sabarimala? Selvi says that many in the group wanted to go as soon as the verdict came.

“We never expected such a historical verdict. We planned the trip as soon as the judgement came. But we predicted such an opposition. Any progress for women’s rights has seen opposition,” she says, as an image of Clara Zetkin overlooks our conversation from a wall in her home.

Selvi says that so far, the average devotee has been told that women are attempting to enter just to desecrate the temple and that these women have no religious beliefs. "This time, we are saying clearly that yes, activists are coming along but their role is limited to organising the devotees and bringing them along. Our intention is to ensure that women devotees get to see their God. Our role is to accompany and safeguard the women devotees. 90 percent of the group are devotees. They have individually followed the rituals and norms to enter the temple,” she adds.

Safety first

However, plans had to be cancelled when they saw the violence unleashed on one woman after another, when they attempted to enter. “Women’s safety is more important than women’s rights. So we decided to wait,” she says with a wry smile.

In the meanwhile, the group decided to email the Kerala government, seeking protection. The Kerala government replied after a while, telling them that their email has been forwarded to concerned police officials who will take necessary action.

Selvi says, “Our intention is not to undertake a secret journey. We think this is the right of every devotee. We believe that the Kerala government will give us protection from those opposing women’s entry. That’s why we specifically mailed them, informing them that we are coming and telling them that they needed to support us. We had asked them to give us a date on which we can come, so they can provide protection. We told them that in and around 50 women would be arriving on December 23.”

Even as the group was awaiting a reply from the Kerala government, women devotees from Karnataka, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and even within Kerala reached out to them, offering to support and expressing an interest in making the journey. While 30 women are certain to go, Manithi expects the number to grow.

Strength in numbers

While women who have attempted to enter Sabarimala in the past have gone solo or in pairs, Selvi believes that Manithi’s strength is in numbers. While they certainly expect attacks from opposing groups on their way to the hill shrine, they say that they will face this bravely.

However, she explains, “Only few of the men at Sabarimala are instigators of violence. The others are common people who think of people like Rehna Fathima and Trupti Desai as those attempting to enter for the sake of entering. They understood wrongly that people like Bindhu Madhavi are not devotees, that they are doing it for publicity. We, at Manithi, are organising and taking along only devotees. They really wish to see Lord Ayyappa. So we believe that through the media, the common people will understand this. While announcing our trip through the media may make them attack us, it also helps the common people understand our intentions that this is for real women devotees to undertake a pilgrimage. We believe that one devotee will understand the feelings of another.”

Selvi is also quick to note that if the Supreme Court judgement had been implemented and women allowed to enter as is their right to do so, the group could have devoted their energies to other women’s issues. “Because of their opposition, activists like us are forced to protect women devotees. If women were also allowed to go, just like men are, this wouldn’t be our job,” she says.

Has the group received any threats after their announcement to the media?

“There have been no direct threats. We have received comments on social media saying we will not allow you to come and there were comments using filthy language. We don’t see these comments as threats. We definitely think that the groups opposed to women’s entry in Kerala will attack us. We will bravely face this. We have will power and group power,” she signs off.

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